[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

Michael H Goldhaber michael at goldhaber.org
Wed Sep 30 09:00:42 UTC 2009

A number of people have challenged Sean Cubitt's ingenious and poetic  
post that started this thread. Perhaps partially restating some other  
comments, I would like to add —however lead-footedly— some points of  
my own.

1) Sean's general background assumptions, sometimes shared with others  
on this list, include two key ones that seem dubious.
   a) Sean: "On the other, it is conducted on
> grounds established not by the self, but by neo-liberal capital and  
> the
> biopolitical governmentality with which it is now intimately  
> associated."
This implies all agency is that of capital. I think this mistaken in  
two ways. First, all sorts of actors retain considerable independent  
agency, even within the (once) dominant capitalist mode of production.  
Denying this, among other things makes any left political effort  
absurd.  Second, contra Marx, we should not now take for granted that  
if we don't have socialism  — as we certainly don't — the only other  
possibility is capitalist rule. There can be, and I believe is a  
different and post-capitalist class system, and it is imperative that  
we understand how this different system works.

b) Sean: "In the same way, public good requires abandoning private  
property. This is
> .....{my ellipsis] .... the lesson of private
> transport and the personal computer: neither of which are ecologically
> sustainable models. "
It is true that fossil-fuel powered internal combustion vehicles and  
current personal computer technology are not environmentally neutral,  
but there is no law of physics that requires that either private  
transport or personal computing be ecologically unsustainable. New  
technologies are possible. (Buses are not necessarily better than  
bicycles.)  The need for socialism cannot be adduced on ecological  
grounds, but only on on grounds of equality and justice, once a large  
enough public becomes convinced that some humane socialism both is  
practicable and would allow the average person a better life. (I  
suspect that within our reach is a system of a much enlarged commons,   
ecologically sound, yet allowing a great deal of individuality and  
personal preferences. For instance, wiki commons do not preclude  
completely individual use of and even additions to the resource.)

2) "Private  property" in the Marxist tradition generally refers to  
privately held productive property, i.e. capital. This is only  
indirectly connected with identity, home life or anything else.  
Further, the English legal concept that one's home is one's castle  
included peasants specifically and dates far further back than 150  
years.  It was by no means restricted to a small set of bourgeoisie,  
although of course capitalists sought to strip the proletariat of  
personal identity, so that they would be interchangeable and thus not  
irreplaceable. I strongly suspect that for most of the world's  
people,  however poor, identity remains of vital import, and so does  
some degree of privacy in some form. Also, the public good may require  
a partial sacrifice of private property in the Marxist sense, but how  
much is not clear.

3) I am not certain I grasp what Sean means by  "identity...... poses  
itself as the obverse of community." How does an abstract concept or a  
complex internal sensation pose itself? Or, from what or whose  
viewpoint is it so posed? If this means that identity in fact is the  
other side of the same coin  as community, I would agree, in the sense  
that identity is significantly constructed from (overlapping )  
communities and vice versa. But I infer from context rather that Sean  
believes  identity is rather the "reverse"of community, not the  
obverse; otherwise why be so negative about identity? If so, I  
sharply  disagree.

4) Current forms of  identity are not primarily composed of state- (or  
capital-) imposed categories. For instance, the state hardly  
originated the identity of gay or bisexual. Nor  did either state or  
capital play a significant role in providing the very wide range of  
other adjectives that people commonly use partially to describe  
themselves, and still less did either shape a great many inner  
experiences on which the typical sense of identity and self-hood is  
quite largely based.

5) In my view, consistent with my notions of the emerging post- 
capitalist (but not socialist) mode of production that I have referred  
to for twenty years as the attention economy, privacy is still an  
important feature, even though its meaning has partially flipped. If  
you think of the older privacy in terms of  having windows composed of  
one-way mirrors, those mirrors worked to shield those inside from the  
gaze of outsiders., while allowing insiders to see out. Now,  the one- 
way glass is often reversed. Anyone can see in, but those inside  do  
not have to pay attention to those outside. Privacy in other words now  
means primarily the ability to focus one's attention as one chooses.    
Capitalist firms and others try to breach this barrier, but with very  
partial success at best, as various filters — mental, political or  
technical — reassert  it. {Let me reiterate stubbornly that my use of  
the term "attention economy," which I introduced in the 1980's, has  
little to do with advertising, and, by the way, Dallas Smythe, as far  
as I am aware, never used the term.]

6) The argument that we can only assert the public good by abandoning  
identity reminds me of the conservative view of socialism as creating  
a society of ants. This is certainly very bad propaganda for  
socialism. To call for sacrifice of identity as part of a political  
program strikes me as unlikely way to attract adherents. What happened  
to Marx's notion that "the free development of each is a precondition  
for the free development of all" ?  (Of course Buddhism and other  
religious practices call for the renunciation of self, but hopefully  
only for those who individually choose that path.) Let me also observe  
that the military and prisons try most assiduously to strip away  
identity. This is not to create genuine community.

7) It is not true that whistle blowers need anonymity. The best  
protection for a genuine whistle blower is publicity and lots of it.  
If Daniel Ellsberg had been anonymous at the time of handing over the  
Pentagon papers, he could have been easily discovered  and killed.  
Hiding behind anonymity allows the promulgation of all kinds of lies  
as well as of secrets.

8) Why accept 2001 as the time of the closing of the supposedly  
previously open web, rather than see that the Internet remains a  
vitally important locus of contestation,  newly open for many who  
could not avail themselves of its earlier more exclusive and therefore  
more closed operation? If a great many people now take advantage in  
myriad ways of the opportunities afforded by the existence of the  
Internet, that does not make their new actions primarily  
"opportunistic" in the pej0rative  sense Sean appears to me to imply.  
Again, possibilities of agency are shortchanged in this formulation.

9) I think the example of the non-existent "Luther Blissett" as a form  
of anonymous publishing is of quite limited value. True, it can  serve  
as a form of resistance to prevailing and often egotistic  or  
narcissistic academic practice. (An earlier and perhaps more  
successful  example was "Nicholas Bourbaki," the name adopted in the  
1940's 0r 50's by a group of French modern mathematicians. )But could  
genuine dialogue  —even on  this list— take place or be served by  
anonymous entries? Individuals still do experience and still do think  
in idiosyncratic ways, and to lose the distinctions for the sake of  
the public good, while it might damp down competitiveness in academia,  
would hardly be an advantage in developing good public ideas — in my  
(admittedly private) view.


On Sep 23, 2009, at 8:02 AM, Sean Cubitt wrote:

> Arising from question and answer session at a talk yesterday at the
> Pervasive media Studio in Bristol. The central topic was the  
> environmental
> impact of digital media, but I threw in the thesis below. A very smart
> questioner raised the question of anonymity. It took me several  
> hours to
> work through just how important that question is. I think it has a  
> bearing
> on the playground/factory issue. I hope so anyway. The de carolis  
> ref is to
> Massimo de Carolis, 1996, Toward a Phenomenology of Opportunism in  
> Virno and
> Hardt's collection Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics
> Sean
> Private property stands to the public good as identity stands to  
> anonymity.
> We cannot achieve public good without sacrificing both private  
> property and
> identity. Privacy is not a given but an ascription, whether
> self-administered or provided by others. This is also the case with
> identity, which poses itself as the obverse of community. Both  
> identity and
> privacy are results of historical processes of capital, which  
> required the
> individuation first of households and later of persons as units of
> consumption and reproduction. This is the position we must start  
> from in a
> socialist analysis of surveillance
> Thesis: Privacy was only ever the privilege of a small proportion of  
> the
> world's population for a brief period in history. For about 150  
> years, the
> European bourgeoisie enjoyed private rooms, private water closets  
> and a life
> distinct from the life of the street. That period is now over,  
> thanks to the
> development of always-on, ubiquitous media. The only people left  
> with a
> direct interest in privacy are wife-beaters and tax-evaders.
> Corollary: The 'loss' of privacy is no loss for those who never  
> possessed
> it. Privacy was born in the invention of the division between public  
> and
> private, and remains dependent on that division. As capital has  
> moved from
> production to consumption; as consumption has moved from mass to
> personalised; and as personalisation has moved from choice to the  
> active
> participation of prosumers and user-generated content, the distinction
> between public and private has become harder to maintain. But the
> publication of private information in blogs, social networks and other
> convergent media has not been undertaken innocently either.
> If on the one hand there is no naturally given privacy which can be  
> lost,
> the social construct had been altered. In line with the post-marxist
> tendency in contemporary theory, much analysis has focused on the
> surveillant state. But the state has had relatively little to do  
> with the
> formal principles of contemporary surveillance which, as Elmer has  
> argued,
> is far more properly associated with commerce. The extraction of
> commercially exploitable 'personalities' from data flows such as  
> online
> behaviours also structures forensic data mining, but is almost  
> invariably
> pioneered by commerce. Commercial surveillance is at least as  
> effective as
> political in constructing concepts of the self attired in the  
> mystery of
> privacy and identity. These two ascriptions are a pair. Privacy  
> expresses
> the economic condition of private property; identity expresses the  
> political
> construction of individuality in regimes of power. Both, being  
> historically
> produced, necessarily have histories.
> Antithesis: Anonymity is a tactic required of whistle-blowers, who  
> act in
> fear of reprisal. Anonymity is the enemy of self-expression. The  
> publication
> of the private self which is the ideological engine of social  
> networking
> technology's user-generated content, is self-expression. Whether  
> undertaken
> in your own name or under a pseudonym, the principle is the same. True
> anonymity is not hiding behind a nickname, but abandoning the  
> principle of
> self=expression in favour of speaking something other than the self.  
> That
> act can be called 'speaking the truth'. (This is an apt label even  
> if an
> anonymous whistle-blower is mistaken: they nonetheless wish to speak
> truthfully of objective situations).
> Self is the outcome of the governmental structuring of demography:  
> gender,
> ethnicity, income, age and patterns of consumption. This kind of  
> self was at
> the centre of the attention economy discussed by Dallas Smythe, when  
> groups
> had become the target of advertising and public relations. The
> micro-targeting provided by cookies and other commercial surveillance
> technologies intensified this corporate gaze, placing the self  
> rather than
> the group at the centre of the enterprise of commercial  
> communication. On
> the one hand, then, self-expression is an opportunistic and tactical
> response to the available resources. On the other, it is conducted on
> grounds established not by the self, but by neo-liberal capital and  
> the
> biopolitical governmentality with which it is now intimately  
> associated.
> This is the form of pseudonymous behaviour developed negatively with
> victimisation (race hatred, cyber-bullying) and positively by the  
> collective
> identity Luther Blissett.
> Such opportunistic tactics – where tactics are the political means  
> available
> to the weak, as opposed to the strategies of the strong (de Certeau)  
> – are
> not necessarily to be dismissed as unethical or valueless. de Carolis
> observes that opportunism  can be seen as the continuous adaptation  
> of one's
> identity to rapidly changing circumstances. On the one hand, this is  
> an
> accommodation to conditions of precarity, while on the other it is  
> also a
> skill, the ability to outmanoeuvre the imposed situation. It is then  
> both a
> technique of continuous reskilling and re-identification developed  
> in the
> interests of post-Fordist production, and at the same time escapes the
> merely tactical sense of opportunism (petty crime, petty acts of  
> sabotage or
> time-wasting) to provide the basis for major acts of autonomy, such  
> as the
> pre-2001 world wide web.
> Opportunistic anonymity arises then from consideration of the imposed
> situation and from a resolution to work exclusively in it or with it  
> but
> against it or in excess of it. This is the moment when the imposed  
> identity,
> which is the place prepared fro the person in the imposed situation,  
> and s
> there structural position within it, has to be abandoned if the  
> situation is
> to be changed radically, rather than merely survived. Any post- 
> surveillant
> condition requires that the object of surveillance – identities –  
> must be
> abandoned. Both political and personal identities must be left  
> behind, since
> both are functions of the same situation.
> In the same way, public good requires abandoning private property.  
> This is
> the lesson of the credit crisis of 2008-9, which was caused by the  
> actual
> ownership of mney by a handful of people, and the illusion of private
> property for a vast number of others. And it is the lesson of private
> transport and the personal computer: neither of which are ecologically
> sustainable models. Privacy is of one kind with privation: property is
> definitionally what you may not have if I possess it: my private  
> property is
> your de-privation. Our private property is the despoliation of the  
> planet.
> Anonymity is the condition of the crowd. Psychology and sociology have
> abandoned the fascination they once had with crowds and masses (Freud,
> Reich, Ortega y Gassett) in favour of identity politics and individual
> psychology. Pluralising the self (the schiz) is one aspect of the  
> potential
> change; reducing the boundaries between self and crowd is the other,  
> the
> route so far untaken. It is time to recover the crowd from both
> hyper-individuation and from the tribalism, from user-generated  
> capitalism
> and from the style-based subcultures which use consumption as a  
> means of
> resistance.
> Synthesis: It is on such a basis that a new sociology of solidarity  
> might be
> built as a political platform no longer based on produsers and  
> prosumers but
> on post-individuals who recognise their commonality first and their
> personality second. This is not an austerity program, though it  
> implies an
> end to endless consumption and waste. It is instead a move from the
> valuation of the individual by what and how they consume and prosume  
> to the
> values of sharing, and a remaking of shared values.
> Prof Sean Cubitt
> scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
> Director
> Media and Communications Program
> Faculty of Arts
> Room 127 John Medley East
> The University of Melbourne
> Parkville VIC 3010
> Australia
> Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
> Fax:+ 61 3 8344 5494
> M: 0448 304 004
> Skype: seancubitt
> http://www.culture-communication.unimelb.edu.au/media-communications/
> http://www.digital-light.net.au/
> http://homepage.mac.com/waikatoscreen/
> http://seancubitt.blogspot.com/
> http://del.icio.us/seancubitt
> Editor-in-Chief Leonardo Book Series
> http://leonardo.info
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